Pancreatitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the pancreas. When the pancreas is inflamed, the powerful digestive enzymes it makes can damage its tissue. The inflamed pancreas can cause release of inflammatory cells and toxins that may harm your lungs, kidneys and heart.
There are two forms of pancreatitis:
The pancreas is an organ in the upper abdomen (belly). It connects to the beginning of the small intestine (the duodenum). It contains the pancreatic duct (tube), which drains digestive enzymes (chemicals) into the small intestine (the duodenum).
Your pancreas has two primary functions. First, it makes digestive enzymes (chemicals) and releases them into the small intestine. These enzymes break down carbohydrates, proteins and fat from food.
Your pancreas also produces several hormones and releases them into the blood. Amongst these hormones is insulin which regulates the amount of sugar in your blood (glucose). Insulin also helps provide energy now and stores some for later.
You’re more likely to develop pancreatitis if you:
Gallstones or heavy alcohol drinking are usually the cause of pancreatitis. Rarely, you can also get pancreatitis from:
Pancreatitis symptoms vary, depending on the type of condition:
Acute pancreatitis symptoms
If you have acute pancreatitis, you may experience:
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms
Chronic pancreatitis may cause some of the same symptoms as acute pancreatitis. You may also develop:
Your provider may suspect pancreatitis based on your symptoms or risk factors, such as heavy alcohol use or gallstone disease. To confirm diagnosis, you may go through additional tests.
Diagnosing acute pancreatitis
For acute pancreatitis, your provider may order a blood test that measures the levels of two digestive enzymes (amylase and lipase) produced by the pancreas. High levels of these enzymes indicate acute pancreatitis. An ultrasound or computed tomography (CT scan) provides images of your pancreas, gall bladder and bile duct that can show abnormalities.
Diagnosing chronic pancreatitis
Diagnosing chronic pancreatitis is more involved. You may also need:
If you have pancreatitis, your primary care provider will probably refer you to a specialist. A doctor who specializes in the digestive system (gastroenterologist) should oversee your care.
Doctors use one or more of these methods to treat acute pancreatitis:
Procedures used to treat pancreatitis
Most pancreatitis complications like pancreatic pseudocyst (type of inflammatory cyst) or infected pancreas tissue are managed through endoscopic procedure (inserting a tube down your throat until it reaches your small intestine, which is next to your pancreas). Gallstones and pancreas stones are removed with an endoscopic procedure.
If surgery is recommended, surgeons can often perform a laparoscopic procedure. This surgical technique involves smaller cuts that take less time to heal.
During laparoscopic surgery, your surgeon inserts a laparoscope (an instrument with a tiny camera and light) into keyhole-sized cuts in your abdomen. The laparoscope sends images of your organs to a monitor to help guide the surgeon during the procedure.
The best way to prevent pancreatitis is to have a healthy lifestyle. Aim to:
These healthy lifestyle choices will also help you avoid gallstones, which cause 40% of acute pancreatitis cases. Your provider may recommend removing your gallbladder if you have painful gallstones multiple times.
Typically, acute pancreatitis lasts only a few days. But if you have a more severe case, it may take several weeks to months to recover. Chronic pancreatitis requires lifelong management.
With treatment, most people with acute pancreatitis completely recover.
Chronic pancreatitis is a long-lasting condition. Once it’s severely damaged, your pancreas doesn’t function properly. You need ongoing support to digest food and manage blood sugar.
With chronic pancreatitis, painful episodes can come and go or persist (last a long time).
You can also have another attack of acute pancreatitis, especially if you haven’t resolved the underlying problem. For example, if you have another gallstone that blocks the opening to the pancreas, you can get acute pancreatitis again.
Most people with a mild case of acute pancreatitis fully recover. However, those with severe pancreatitis are more likely to have life-threatening complications such as:
You can take several steps to prevent another pancreatitis attack:
If you have pancreatitis, you may want to ask your doctor:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Pancreatitis is painful, but in the majority, treatments coupled with lifestyle changes can help you make a full recovery and prevent further acute pancreatitis episodes. While chronic pancreatitis doesn’t go away, you can manage the symptoms and avoid complications with help from your doctor.
For more information on pancreatitis:
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 06/04/2020